ZLITAN, Libya (AP) — The Libyan government showed foreign journalists on Monday a destroyed flu clinic and food warehouses it said had been hit earlier in the day by NATO airstrikes, killing eight people.
The attacks took place in the government-held town of Zlitan, 90 miles (140 kilometers) east of the capital Tripoli and not far from the country’s front line where rebels are battling Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.
NATO denied, however, that it had targeted civilians and said it had only hit a number of military objectives in the area.
A rebel uprising that began in February against longtime Libyan leader Gadhafi escalated into a full-fledged civil war that threatens to split the country. The fighting has degenerated into a stalemate for months, despite a U.N.-mandated NATO air campaign targeting government forces in order to protect civilians.
Even as government minders took journalists to what they described as sites of the latest NATO attacks, the distant rumblings of artillery and explosions could be heard to the east of Zlitan.
In late afternoon, on the eastern edge of the city, journalists witnessed two airstrikes, with their distinctive mushroom cloud explosions.
The Libyan government has repeatedly claimed NATO’s attacks kill civilians and state television is filled with images of dead children supposedly killed in these operations.
Journalists based in Tripoli have heard NATO airstrikes almost every night for the past week, included apparent attacks on Gadhafi’s nearby compound. They have not been taken to any bombing sites in Tripoli, however, suggesting NATO’s gunners are hitting military targets, at least in the capital.
At the scene of the destroyed flu clinic, chest X-rays, medical supplies, flu testing kits and stretchers poked out of the shattered concrete building, and metal reinforcing rods stuck out at crazy angles.
“There were eight people killed,” said Ramadan Mohammed, a local official, though journalists were not shown any remains.
“Their bodies were returned to the families who took them away, but they were shown on Libyan TV,” he added.
Residents at the scene, where several bulldozers and earthmovers pawed through the rubble searching for any other bodies, maintained there were no military targets in the area.
They said the hospital was hit at around 8 a.m. local time as people were arriving for work.
A nearby complex of food warehouses were also hit, apparently by missiles, and one was still burning when the journalists arrived.
Each warehouse had a hole torn in the roof, but in only one case did the projectile explode and ignite the supplies inside, including sacks of flour, macaroni, cooking oil and canned tomatoes.
“Is this the protection of civilians?” said local resident Rajab Sharaf, standing outside the burning building as the cinderblock walls buckled outward from the heat. “This is food for the Libyan people, there are no military forces around.”
An officer at NATO’s operational command in Naples, Italy said there is no evidence to support Libyan allegations that civilian targets were hit.
“NATO struck a number of targets near Zlitan today that were military in nature. These targets were a command and control node and a vehicle storage facility that contained military vehicles,” said the officer, who could not be identified under the alliance’s standing rules.
Journalists were not shown any sites that fit such a description.
“This is not the first time that such allegations have been made and, as is the case with all NATO strikes, a thorough damage assessment is conducted afterward,” the NATO officer said, adding that NATO takes great care to minimize the risk to civilians.
Journalists have in the past been shown sites described as civilian that turned out to be otherwise.
On Thursday, the site of a bombed out construction site of a Turkish company shown to journalists was found to contain extensive graffiti suggesting it was being used as a barracks to house soldiers from the 32nd Brigade.
On Sunday, British jets bombed an intelligence building in Tripoli used by Gadhafi’s forces, according to a statement released by the British Ministry of Defense.
“In the early hours of Sunday morning, Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon aircraft conducted a precision strike on the Central Organization for Electronic Research,” said Major General Nick Pope in the statement.
“Ostensibly an engineering academy, the COER has in reality long been a cover for the regime’s nefarious activities.”
Pope added that RAF jets on Sunday also destroyed two staging posts for Gadhafi’s forces near Zlitan and a tank near Gharyan in the Nafusa mountains where the government is also battling rebels.